Friday, 7 March 1997


New Times, 7 March 1997

Anyone who suggested ten years ago that we would now be discussing the rights and wrongs of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia joining NATO would have been ridiculed.
It was not quite the height of the cold war: the United States and the Soviet Union were negotiating seriously on nuclear arms, Mikhail Gorbachev had tentatively begun the  liberalisation of the Soviet Union, and at least some of the communist regimes of the Soviet bloc – notably Hungary and Poland – had relaxed their suppression of dissident opinion.

But the division of Europe between two hostile blocs, one dominated by the United States, the other controlled by the Soviet Union, seemed such an established fact that ending it peacefully appeared utopian even to those, like Edward Thompson and his colleagues in European Nuclear Disarmament, who most wanted it. The idea that NATO should expand to the eastern border of Poland hardly entered the mind of even the most militant western cold warrior.
Which only goes to show that the course of history is impossible to predict. The enlargement of NATO to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic is now imminent. It is US President Bill Clinton's top priority in foreign affairs for 1997, and there is a remarkable degree of consensus across the political spectrum in Europe that it is a good thing. In Britain, it has the blessing of all the main political parties.

But is NATO enlargement really such a bright idea? There are good reasons for doubt. It will be difficult and expensive to integrate Polish, Hungarian and Czech armed forces into NATO's military structure; and enlargement will do nothing for the security of Europe's most volatile region, the Balkans. Most important, it is likely to have an unwelcome effect on Russia.
NATO was begun in 1948 as an anti-Russian alliance at a time when the west feared - with some reason – that Moscow would attack western Europe. Today, NATO says that it is no longer anti-Russian, and that Russians have nothing to fear from its expansion. But it is not seen that way by Russians, or indeed by most Poles, Hungarians and Czechs. The reason they want to join is to provide security against a future military threat from Russia.

These fears of Russia are understandable and legitimate. It is less than ten years since east-central Europe was under the Soviet yoke. Even if Russia today is not a threat, it could well be in the none-too-distant future. It retains substantial nuclear and conventional arsenals, which it has been less willing to dismantle of late than in the early 1990s; and it is anything but politically stable. In the next few years, it could certainly find itself with an authoritarian government, possibly with strong backing from the military, that plays relentlessly on nationalist anti-western themes.

The problem, however, is that expanding NATO eastwards makes it more rather than less likely that this will happen. Public opinion in Russia is running strongly against NATO expansion, and authoritarian nationalist politicians are already trying to exploit this for their own ends. The Russian parliament has refused to ratify the START-2 agreement on strategic nuclear weapons and the government is dragging its feet in other disarmament negotiations. There is a strong case for believing that the priority for European security is to  prevent Russia from turning nasty - and that the best way of doing this is to postpone NATO enlargement and use the good will this creates in Moscow to press for rapid and radical disarmament agreements.

This would of course necessitate some radical new thinking about creating a new post-cold-war security structure for Europe. One option that would certainly allay Russian fears would be expansion of NATO to include Russia. Alternatively, NATO could be recast as a strictly European alliance, excluding both the US and Russia but with non-aggression agreements with each: this would have the advantage of aligning Europe's security arrangements more closely with the political structures that will emerge in the early years of the next century as the European Union expands. Most radically of all, NATO could be dismantled and the security of Europe entrusted to either the European Union or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

All of which sounds ridiculously unrealistic and utopian. But in ten years' time, who knows . . .

Saturday, 1 March 1997


Red Pepper, March 1997

Tony Blair looks set to win the general election. That's good, but the left shouldn't expect radical change, says Paul Anderson

Labour has been ultra-cautious with its pre-election policy commitments for a long time now. Avoiding hostages to fortune was a crucial element of the pre-1992 campaign strategy – and John Smith as leader decided to make it the guiding light of Labour policy-making. Since Tony Blair became leader in 1994, however, "safety first" has been taken to new extremes in just about every area of policy.

The priorities for Blair and shadow chancellor Gordon Brown have been to reassure taxpayers and to calm business nerves. They have repeatedly announced that they will run a tight anti-inflationary fiscal and monetary regime. In January, Brown promised not to change either the top rate or the standard rate of income tax – and said that, with the exception of the money he gets from his windfall tax on the excess profits of privatised utilities, he will stick to the Tories' plans for public spending for his first two years in office. That means a continuing clamp-down on public-sector pay and only small increases in spending on health, education and local government.

Policy on Europe has changed little since 1994 - although shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook has adopted a marginally more sceptical position on economic and monetary union than Labour had before. The idea of the EU running a counter-cyclical macro-economic policy, very popular with both Brown and Cook, has been downgraded, although this is in part because the Delors plan on which it was based was scuppered by the British government in the Council of Ministers.

Labour has stuck to its promise to sign up to the Social Chapter of the Maastricht treaty. But since 1994 it has watered down its commitments to rights for part-time and temporary workers and has abandoned plans to allow trade unions to engage in sympathy actions in certain circumstances. It has also changed its policy on its promised minimum wage: instead of announcing what it will be before the election, as in 1992, it will leave it up to a commission to set it afterwards at a "sensible" level.

In education, the key change since 1994 is that Labour has made it clear that it will not now abolish grammar or grant-maintained schools. In health policy, the party's opposition to the internal market and GP fundholding has softened. Labour will not now abolish Jobseeker's Allowance and go back to Unemployment Benefit, and its pensions policy is in limbo after last year's row at its party conference. The welfare state in its broadest sense is, however, an area where Labour could well prove radical in government. Its plans for "lifelong learning" and a "university for industry" are ambitious, and its "welfare to work" strategy for tackling unemployment contains much that makes sense.

Changing the constitution was the one thing about which Labour under Smith was not ultra-cautious. Reformers looked forward to a Labour government legislating for a Bill of Rights, an elected second chamber and devolution to a Scottish parliament, a Welsh assembly and directly elected regional councils in England. Labour also promised a referendum on the electoral system. Now devolution to Scotland, Wales and the English regions will happen only if people vote for it in referendums, and Lords reform will be limited for now to removal of the voting rights of hereditary peers. There are persistent rumours, denied by Blair's office, that he has decided to ditch plans for a referendum on electoral reform.

Labour has downgraded the profile of environment policy since 1994 – to the disappointment of green campaigners (see Charles Secrett in last month's Red Pepper) – but has not formally changed it. On transport, its key shift has been on what to do about the privatised rail network, where it is now promising something less than wholesale renationalisation.